Love's Cold Calculus

Notes on the least reputable and most profitable literary genre in American publishing: the romance novel.

The 1960s saw a boom in Gothic and Regency romances also British imports, and also sexually modest, modeled usually on Jane Eyre or Rebecca. The audience for most of the earlier "sweet" romances, Hudson says, was made up predominantly of younger girls and older women. The "Savage Surrender" historicals of the '70s were generally heftier than previous romances--many point to Gone With the Wind as the model--and they were sexually emboldened by Jacqueline Susann and Erica Jong and the first currents of feminism. These books depicted a fever-pitch version of the war between the sexes, complete with kicking and screaming heroines, ruthless heroes, and intense physical relationships that often included rape, sexual domination, and captivity.

"I sure remember the first romance book I ever read," Hudson says with a laugh. "Joanna Lindsey's A Pirate's Love--pirate kidnaps beautiful young woman, ravishes her. I was hooked." In all such books there is very much a cake-and-eat-it-too fantasy at work: If only the woman can endure the abuse and ravishing she suffers at the hands of the hero, she may yet impress upon him her virtue, she may "teach the devil to love," and in so doing she may transform him.

"Taming tigers is what it's all about," romance writer Daphne Clair has written, and in every book the hunter is always captured by the game, the tables are always turned, the masculine is always dismantled. The Byronic hero becomes, in the words of Linda Barlow, "the ripped-up, torn apart, brought to his knees Alpha male." And the heroine makes the tender step from virgin to lover to mother. And everyone lives happily ever after.

"Waiting in a welfare line isn't a fantasy that many romance readers would care to participate in. Stealing a pair of breeches and hiring yourself on as a stableboy to an earl who will fall in love with you the instant he knows you are female is a far more engaging way to confront your fears about poverty."

--Kathleen Gilles Seidel,

"Judge Me By the Joy I Bring"

Krahn wrote her first romance in 1983. She had finished her master's degree in counseling, married a physicist, and taught school.

"I had always written stories," she says, "going all the back to high school, but in those days I'd always reach a certain point and just quit. Part of that is the maturity factor. It requires a certain amount of maturity to finish something, to see it through. By the time I was 30 and I had read that first historical romance, I was intrigued enough with the idea of romance, and I was perhaps naive enough to think that there was room for me to do something different. Everything was really changing, in society and within the genre. You could really sense that readers were growing somewhat tired of all those stereotypes, the truly archetypal characters."

So she started writing her own book, with absolutely no aspirations of ever getting it published; she just wanted to see what she could pull off. "It was fun and engaging. I was hugely interested in the historical part of the equation, and the opportunity it afforded me of exploring the whole, wide world through a different venue. Through all the research that's necessary to pull off a really convincing historical romance, you can really learn a lot.

"Writing these things is not an easy chore," Krahn says. "Believe me. The distance between the writer and reader is almost nonexistent. You have to be engaged when you're writing, in the characters, the action, and the conflict. You have to really care about these people and their situation, because you're inviting your readers to to come right into the story, to partake of the emotions involved in the relationship. You're not only supposed to feel for these people; at some point or some level you're supposed to be these people. That has to be true for the writer as well as the reader. In romance writing subjectivity is everything. It's a very intimate form of writing."

Since that first book in 1983, Krahn has churned out 19 historical romances, and over the years her persistence has paid off in steadily increasing sales and respect within the industry. One of the perks of success in the romance publishing industry is the chance it affords writers to move away from the "clinch" covers that are such unavoidable stigma for writers and readers alike.

"Sure," Hudson says, "there are many readers who are embarrassed to be seen carrying those books around, because they get teased." Once a writer has established herself as a recognizable name in her own right her books are often published with what are called "step back" covers, in which the clinch is overlaid with a more tasteful, mainstream-looking cover, allowing the book to stand out in the romance section of a bookstore.

That's nice, writers agree, but it can also be scary. "You figure you have maybe three seconds to hook the reader in a bookstore," Krahn says. "And the covers are a big part of that hook."

Romance readers are a savvy and particular lot, and they know how to read a clinch cover to see what's inside. The cover art is loaded with information, usually providing an indication of the level of sensuality and the book's historical period or locale. How passionate is the embrace? In what stage of undress are the hero and heroine? Is the hero a Native American or a Lord? Is there a castle in the background? The plainer covers don't provide any of that crucial information, and writers often fear that their books may be lost to new readers.

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